Lawsuit alleges cover-up by Sierra Vista hospital in patient's death

Lawsuit claims staff’s negligence led to death; hospital denies allegations

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJanuary 21, 2014 

Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

A hospital’s negligence caused a 42-year-old patient to die after a routine surgery, according to a lawsuit headed to trial this month.

Furthermore, the suit alleges, the hospital and treating surgeon conspired to cover up the negligence by hiring a pathologist to create a “bogus” report.

But an attorney for Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center contends that the claims of conspiracy and cover-up are “preposterous,” a stretch “beyond the bounds of reason” and “unsupported by any admissible evidence.”

Attorneys will appear in court Wednesday for a pretrial hearing in the case. The plaintiffs, Sara Taylor and her minor son, are seeking punitive damages for malpractice, wrongful death, fraud, conspiracy and cover up.

Claims made in filing a lawsuit only give one side of the case. According to the plaintiff’s suit, filed in September 2010, the following occurred:

Taylor’s husband, Tyrone Taylor, of Arroyo Grande, went to Sierra Vista on Jan. 27, 2010, to have a problematic disk in his cervical spine removed. The surgery, according to the plaintiffs, entails a well-known risk for post-operative hematoma, a condition in which a blood pocket develops. The hematoma can expand until it obstructs the windpipe and suffocates the patient.

Roughly 12 hours after the surgery, according to the lawsuit, Taylor reported “breathing feels different.” A nurse wrote on her chart that there was a “sudden change in patient voice.”

At 2 a.m. on Jan. 28, the nurse called Taylor’s surgeon, Donald Ramberg, about the changes in breathing, difficulty swallowing and swelling. At that point, the doctor concluded Taylor had a sore throat and ordered an ice pack and numbing gel, the suit said.

Ten minutes later, the nurse called for a rapid response team to evaluate Taylor. Taylor was given oxygen and medicine for anxiety before the team left the room. At 2:30 a.m., Taylor was blue in the face and had no pulse. Despite an hour of life-saving attempts by emergency room surgeon Rushdi Cader, Taylor died.

Cader, also a defendant in the lawsuit, said Taylor’s trachea was obstructed from an expanding post-operative hematoma, according to the suit.

The hospital’s risk manager contacted the county coroner’s office about an autopsy but was turned down since a surgeon had witnessed the death. The hospital asked Sara Taylor for consent to commission a private autopsy.

A private agency, 1-800-Autopsy, referred the hospital to pathologist George Vandermark. In his report, Vandermark claimed Taylor died of a fatty liver.

The plaintiffs claim the “bogus” autopsy was an attempt to placate Sara Taylor so she would believe the cause of death was natural. The suit claims Ramberg colluded with the hospital by telling Taylor the autopsy had found no bleeding, swelling or blood clotting.

Suspicious, Taylor sought a second autopsy, which agreed with Cader — that the post-operative hematoma killed her husband.

“It appeared that Sierra Vista knew that the failure to diagnose the post-operative hematoma that killed Mr. Taylor would amount to neglect on their part based on the fact that all the clinical indications to diagnose and treat the hematomas were clearly present,” Taylor’s attorney, Steven Vartazarian, wrote in his court filings.

The hematoma could have been easily treated with a small surgical incision, the plaintiffs claimed.

In his filings, Jay Hieatt, an attorney for Sierra Vista, said there was no conspiracy — proved by the fact that the coroner suggested an autopsy and recommended 1-800-Autopsy.

“The allegation is nothing but rampant speculation unsupported by any admissible evidence,” he wrote, adding that the staff acted appropriately in Taylor’s treatment. “This is hardly a case which screams out that the nursing staff was negligent.”

While Hieatt claimed the nursing staff was “diligently monitoring the patient, calling the physician to advise him of the patient’s symptoms,” William Clinkenbeard, an attorney representing Ramberg, contends that during the first phone call from the nurse, his client was not told that Taylor’s voice had changed.

“Dr. Ramberg testified that he was not told that the patient complained that his breathing felt different or that the patient was exhibiting swelling around the operative site,” he wrote.

Ramberg never accepted Vandermark’s autopsy conclusions, he wrote, and did not convey them to the victim’s wife afterward.

Attorneys for Sierra Vista and Ramberg could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Vartazarian’s office said he was withholding comment at this time.

Keep updated by adding Patrick S. Pemberton on Google+.

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